Josh Gad is thrilled these days, and not just because he’s starring in the video game comedy Pixels, alongside Adam Sandler, Kevin James, and Peter Dinklage. Gad is a huge fan of the ‘80s, so he’s thrilled that everything old is new again – from ‘80s hair styles to retro video games.
“I was born in ’81, right at the height of arcade fever,” Gad says. “I am a product of the ‘80s. The ‘80s are a very significant part of my life. Anybody who knows me knows that I’m obsessed with all things ‘80s pop culturally, whether it’s The Goonies or Back to the Future or really any of the Amblin movies, a lot of which happen to be written by the esteemed Chris Columbus, who provided us the screenplays to Gremlins, The Goonies and Adventures in Babysitting. So that nostalgia part of bringing these ‘80s games to life as a fan boy myself was hugely appealing. And being on set fighting these creatures, it was like a ‘pinch yourself’ moment.”
Gad grew up in the ‘80s in South Florida, which also has a place in video game cinematic history. Director Seth Gordon’s documentary, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, was filmed at the very arcade Gad frequented as a kid – although many years later.
“I have two older brothers, so I remember going to the local arcade in South Florida – it was called Grand Prix Race-O-Rama – and we would just play nonstop on a Saturday or Sunday,” said Gad. “To get the chance to chase these video game characters that I remember playing against as a kid was like being a child all over again.”
Being a movie star has a lot of perks, but for retro gamer Gad, he was able to meet someone that only a fan boy would appreciate when Professor Iwatani, the creator of Pac-Man, came to set. Iwatani has a cameo in the movie and spent some time at Pinewood Studios Toronto. (Bandai Namco also partnered with Sony Pictures to create a free mobile game based on the games in the movie.)
“Going up against Pac-Man and Donkey Kong and Centipede, having them come to life in three dimensions, bigger than life, was an unbelievably cool experience to be a part [of],” said Gad. “But meeting Professor Iwatani was the best. He’s the nicest guy. It was one of those geeky fan boy moments, where I just looked at him and I’m like, ‘You changed the world with just a giant yellow dot the size of a quarter, chomping his mouth open and closed going after a bunch of ghosts. You did that. Nobody else could come up with that.’ I just love the fact that 35 years later we’re still celebrating the existence of Pac-Man and his ‘wocka, wocka, wocka’ verbiage. I just love that. So it was very cool to meet Iwatani.”
Another benefit of starring in a video game movie – besides getting to navigate a 70-foot real-world recreation of the Donkey Kong screen – was having sets filled with classic arcade games. Gad and the rest of the crew logged a lot of time playing the classic games that are featured in the movie as bad guy aliens. But Gad was at a disadvantage when it came to his skills with the arcade machines versus his co-stars.
“They have an advantage on me,” said Gad. “I mean they were significantly more evolved than I was in the era in the 1980s. I was pretty close to being an embryo when most of these games were at their height. So they know I could kick any of their asses in any Call of Duty or modern games, but when it comes to the old school arcade games, Sandler, Dinklage, and James definitely have my number. There were a couple of games that I’m better at than others. I’m good at Pac-Man, not so good at Donkey Kong. Pretty good at Galaga. All right at Space Invaders. I was always addicted to Galaga. It was one of those games that I was never quite great at, but for some reason, I loved it.”
By now, the trailers have revealed a who’s who in terms of video game characters featured as CGI in the movie. But there are still plenty of cameos hidden in this flick. And Gad has his favorites, he’s just not going to tell anyone.
“I’m not going to reveal those because I feel like there’s so much that’s been revealed by the trailers that there are some wonderful surprises left in store, which I don’t want to be the guy to ruin,” said Gad. “There were certainly a couple characters that for me were really exciting, and others that actually got cut along the way that I was bummed about. But hopefully there’s room to explore more down the road. I can faithfully say that any gamer, or anybody remotely familiar with games of the 1980s, is going to lose their minds when they see this movie and see what Chris Columbus and company have created.”
One other thing Columbus created was another wacky character for Gad to make his own. Having achieved success in theater (working with Matt Stone and Trey Parker on Book of Mormon), animation (playing Olaf in Disney’s Frozen juggernaut), and live action movies (The Wedding Ringer with Kevin Hart), and television (The Comedians with Billy Crystal), Gad took on the first-ever cross-dimensional video game love story with the made-for-the-movie Dojo Quest game and its lead character, Lady Lisa (played by actress Ashley Benson).
“Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling wrote Ludlow Lamonsoff as really eccentric – and I’m no stranger to eccentric characters,” said Gad. “This was a chance to sink my teeth into a guy who’s strangely off. But there’s also something wonderfully vulnerable about him. He’s chasing the love of his life, which is a video game character – it makes him sound insane, but he believes in a world where he can co-exist with Lady Lisa and run away with her.”
Not many guys will fault Gad (who is happily married with two kids) for wanting to run off with Benson, but that’s part of the fun of Pixels. It’s a movie that understands video game culture back when gaming was a new thing and arcades were the place to hang out, and it uses bleeding-edge special effects and a great cast of comedians to crack the kill screen.